Folding bikes: Welcome to the fold

Editor’s note: In Issue #9 of Bicycle Times, we reviewed three different folding bicycles. Our staff is chock full of lifelong cyclists; however, none of them were particularly experienced with folding bicycles. To learn as much as possible about folders, we quizzed a group of experts: representatives from folding bike companies, folding bike retailers, and folks who ride folders as their everyday bikes. Watch this space as we post full reviews of three bikes we tested, the Dahon IOS P8, the Brompton S6L and the Xootr Swift.

Why Folders?

By Karl Rosengarth

There’s a long list of responses to the "why folders?" question. Somewhere near the top of said list is the fact that folders and mass transit go together like peanut butter and jelly. In most cities, folding bikes are permitted on light rail and bus systems, whereas full-sized bikes are not permitted, or may be restricted during rush hour, or relegated to a pair of bike-rack spots on the front of certain buses.

Using a folder to reduce car trips, and to integrate with mass transit, has economic benefits. Bob Thomas has leveraged his folder to go completely car-free: "As an architect, I’ve used a folder for over 30 years. I travel extensively for my projects, and the folder, along with a good choice of location here in Philadelphia for my home and office, has made it unnecessary for me ever to purchase an automobile."

Folder proponents point out that compactness is a virtue. Riders with limited space at work or home can take advantage of a compact folder to stash it in a corner, under a desk, in a stairwell, behind a door, or other free space. Apartment dwellers and students living in dorms are prime examples. Boat, RV and small-plane owners represent a subset of the folder market that also grooves on the compactness. And as Karl Ulrich of Xootr points out, "Those who combine driving and cycling like folders because they do not need bike racks."

Folders are liberating. "Ditch all the excuses you have for not riding to the store, a friend’s, a film, a date, or work," says Ed Rae of Brompton. Security is one excuse that goes right out the window (or in through the front door). With a folder, you don’t have to leave your bike outside where it could get stolen or exposed to foul weather. When Ed visited Bicycle Times and rode with us, he brought his Brompton right into the restaurant where we stopped to refuel – and nobody batted an eyelash.

After riding the test bikes, our staff learned that these small-wheeled bikes feel nimble and handle tight quarters with aplomb. "Anyone who faces crowded streets with lots of pedestrians, taxis, animate and inanimate obstructions loves the super-maneuverability and ‘threading the needle’ that a small-wheeled bike can provide," Ed Rae explains.

Then there’s a certain "cool factor" that goes along with the design aesthetics of a folding bicycle. "As an engineer myself, I also appreciate the creativity and the beauty of the designs. There is no doubt that they arouse curiosity and attract attention, which can be fun in its own way," says folder rider Vinod Vijayakumar of Philadelphia.

Common Misconceptions

The small wheels often mislead folks into thinking that folders are slow and not for serious cyclists. Not so. Folders are geared such that you go just as far with each turn of the pedals as full-sized bikes. Folders may look flexy and nervous-handling, but well-made models feel solid and handle confidently. You might be afraid that the bikes are freakishly complex and hard to fold, but with a little practice you should find them easy to fold. Their smallish frames may look like they are only for short people, but most folders can be properly fitted for riders of all sizes.

Advice for Prospective Buyers

"Ride more than one brand before you buy. Try to find shops that have experience with and that feature folders, rather than having one dusty, token folder sitting in the corner. A good shop can help you with fitting options, which can be a challenge especially if you are 6’5" or taller," advises Mike McGettigan of Trophy Bikes in Philadelphia.
"Some brands forgo ride quality for trick one-step folding processes or overly exaggerated designs. We emphasize a test ride to anyone looking at a folder in puzzlement – after which they come back with a pleasantly surprised look on their face," advises John Keoshgerian of Zen Bikes NYC.

Steve Cuomo of Dahon points out that wheel size may dictate ride comfort, and how far you will want to ride the bike. You may want to try folders with various wheel sizes to compare how comfortable you feel on each. Steve also notes that folders vary in frame and handlepost stiffness. That’s another thing to pay attention to during your test ride.

How long are your rides? You’ll want to get a model with appropriate gearing and a cockpit that’s suited for your intended use. Consider your main uses. Will you need fenders and lights? What about integrated luggage or bags to haul stuff? Tire choice is key.

If "the fold" is particularly important to you, spend some time researching and testing before you buy. How small do you need the fold? There is quite a bit of variation in the folded size of the various brands/models. How quickly do you need to fold your bike? Some styles fold quicker than others. How "neat" is the folded bike? As Brompton’s Ed Rae says: "Does the fold keep all the sharp, greasy and poking bits tucked out of the way, or are you holding an oily porcupine?" Will you be carrying the folded bike a lot, or rolling it along with it folded? Folders that lock securely when folded are easier to transport than ones that flop around. Some styles can be rolled when folded, but not all. Rolling, rather than carrying, the folded package may prove advantageous, especially if you have long distances to cover.

Parting Thoughts

When asked how he and his wife most commonly use their folding bikes, Vinod Vijayakumar of Philadelphia said, "Commuting, probably, but we’ve also used them simply as an alternative to taxis/cars for getting about town for small errands, shopping, going out to eat, movies, etc. And if we’ve had a few drinks, they’re easy enough to put in the trunk of a taxi and get home. I wouldn’t discount the exercise aspect, either; my wife and I regularly go for hour rides on the weekends, or pack them into the car when we’re driving somewhere for the weekend. Getting on a bike is my favorite way of seeing any place, new or familiar, and a folder allows you to take that experience with you. Also, when friends are visiting from out of town, we’ll often take the Bromptons and do the sight-seeing thing that way ‚Äî folders being a great way to pop in and out of places."

Mike McGettigan is bullish on folders: "I think the market is iPod-sized. I said that a year ago, and I still feel that way. When we started selling Bromptons six years ago, my goal was to sell one a month. We’ve sold more than 250 Bromptons alone, besides Dahons, Swifts, and others."

Ed Rae thinks globally and rides locally: "The cost of energy, the trend of ‚Äòre-urbanizing’, the quest for personal fitness, the future of the planet and the ever-greater sense so many have of wanting to do the right thing all contribute to practical bike use, and the concentration of all this brings folders to the fore."

Road warrior Ed Rae offers sage advice: "Travel always with a bike. It’s always there for a spur of the moment ride, exploration or errand run."


Thanks to the following folder folks for contributing to this story: Steve Cuomo, John Keoshgerian, Mike McGettigan, Ed Rae, Bob Thomas, Karl Ulrich and Vinod Vijayakumar.

Read the reviews

Dahon IOS P8

Brompton S6L

Xootr Swift

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